A sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi, created by the seminal Indian artist Ramkinkar Baij, in Guwahati has fallen foul of the Assam government because it is not an accurate likeness of the freedom fighter.

Siddhartha Bhattacharyya, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator from Guwahati, claimed that Baij’s work presented a “distorted image” of Gandhi, and so will be demolished and replaced. “Look at the disproportionate hands and feet,” he said. “They do not resemble those of the Mahatma in any manner. His face is distorted, as also the pair of glasses.”

The plan was later disavowed by a Twitter handle of the Assam government – and yet scepticism persists.

This is not the first time a politician has had a quarrel with Baij’s interpretation of a public figure in a sculpture. In 1979, West Bengal Minister Jatin Chakraborty had threatened to replace his Tagore bust at Balatonfüred in Hungary because it didn’t “look like” the poet-scholar.

This was a year before Baij’s death and his response to the criticism was a guffaw, followed by “Let them smash it, who cares? I didn’t ask them to install it.”

Baij was notoriously unconcerned about fame and posterity. For the father of modern sculpture in India, the joy of art lay in creation. He was not beyond using it to plug a leak in a roof, as Ritwick Ghatak documented in his unfinished film on Baij, or giving it away on a whim. His students KG Subramanyam and KS Radhakrishnan have spoken about the nightmare of curating his works for retrospectives.

Baij's statute of Gandhi at Gandhi Mandap in Guwahati. Photo credit: YouTube/Abhijit Kumar Misra

His bas relief sculpture Dandi March too faced scorn when it was to be installed at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi to commemorate the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s trek from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi. “What is there in it?” a panel member had scoffed. “Just a man with a stick in his hand.”

“Politicians prefer the aesthetic realism promoted by the British art education system,” said art scholar Ella Datta. “They like life-like images but Baij captured the spirit of his subject. There was a tremendous energy in his works and superb use of rough textures.”

The Tagore bust that caused offence to some portrayed the man towards the end of his life – melancholic and old, an experimentation in form. And the Gandhi sculpture was nowhere like the benevolent father figure Indians idolised. “Here he was an undaunted figure, there is heroism in the bend of his body,” said Datta.

In an interview with Scroll.in, one of Baij’s early students, A Ramachandaran, speaks of his guru, his art and the contempt in which politicians hold great art.

What is the story behind this statue of Gandhi in Guwahati?
This image of Gandhi actually goes back to a maquette [a small-scale model] made by Baij sometime after Gandhi’s famous last visit to Santiniketan. This was even before I joined him as a student in 1957. I would say it was done in the late 1940s. It is now sitting at the National Gallery of Modern Art and is more stylised in my opinion than the later stylised versions. It was first enlarged into a concrete structure at Kalabhavan and this work was overseen by Kinkar-da himself in 1968. A year later, he made a bronze cast to be installed at Guwahati, but I don’t know what the extent of his involvement in it was. It was probably a project undertaken by his students. Then to make matters worse, they whitewashed the statue. For this reason, there is a question mark over this statue as a Baij work.

A sculpture by Ramkinkar Baij at Santiniketan. Photo credit: Biswarup Ganguly/ Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-3.0

According BJP MLA from Guwahati, Siddhartha Bhattacharya, Kinkar’s Gandhi sculpture installed in the city is a “distortion”. There was a similar political controversy over Baij’s Tagore bust in Budapest – it was criticised for not “looking like” Tagore.
What do our politicians know of art? When they ask for a sculpture they want a pretty reproduction, something like calendar art. For them, the theme is not important, the political ideology is. In France or UK, a monumental work of art like this would be given pride of place in a public space. Look at the yaksha and yakshi Kinkar-da created for the Reserve Bank of India building in New Delhi. It is well known that artists work on concept, they need creative freedom. Politicians aren’t bothered with preserving priceless existing works of art but they want to pull down things. At the Gandhi Darshan in Delhi, see the state of KG Subramanyam’s work, they have half demolished it to create a toilet. All the paintings are in a mess there, including mine.

This criticism is interesting, because art scholars point out that he was a curious mix of the real/natural and the conceptual. He refused to be bound by the two opposite styles, using them both as he found fit.
Kinkar-da did different kinds of work. Under Nandalal Bose and the Bengal School, he was naturalistic but he broke away from them under the influence of the Expressionists of Europe. His understanding of the human anatomy was influenced by Picasso, Rodin. He was a modernist in the true sense of the word. Yes, his work was life-like, but the work had to convince you of the person he moulded. Even in his paintings he was influenced by nature but nature was only a take-off point, he made it his own thing.

'Buddha' by Ramkinkar Baij. Photo credit: PK Niyogi/ Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated

So what was his take on the human body in sculpture? The distortions he is accused of, what did they mean?
He stuck to the structural quality of the human body, not the anatomy as we know it. This was about knowing and defining the body through the skeleton. You analyse the body and sculpt it as armature. Distortions, if any, are only meant to create a certain vitality, as this work does. Look at his wonderful work on Tagore. In Santiniketan, he was the first to bring in the concept of outdoor sculpture, using the play of light and darkness to highlight its subtleties. He was capable of both, realism as you can see in Mill Call and Santhal Family, but he could also make an absolutely abstract lampstand.